Heroic portraits from visiting artist Chuck Close.

By Libby Rosof | Artist Chuck Close is known for two things—his enormous portraits of people scrutinized from hair to pore and ear to ear, and his severely disabled body. But he’s still making art—great art; and in life, he has taken his disabilities and turned them into a source of power. His trademark billboard-sized mug shots each shock the eye with their newness, their merger of astounding, abstract technical feats with the ordinariness of photographic detail.

Close came to campus in April through the annual Locks Foundation Distinguished Artists Series, which brings in leading artists, curators, and critics. Last year, the series brought renowned critic and Goya author Robert Hughes; the year before that, it presented artist Alex Katz in conversation with curator Robert Storr. Funded by the Locks Foundation and Sueyan Locks (director of the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia and a PennDesign overseer), the series gives Penn students face-to-face conversations, critiques, and studio visits with people from the top of the art world.

“Every time you come to a fork in the road, don’t think,” Close told a huge crowd at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theatre. “Automatically take the harder route, and pretty soon you’re off on someplace of your own, and no one else’s rules apply.”

Though he credited that advice to sculptor Richard Serra, a friend since their graduate-student days at Yale, the 65-year-old Close has been painting by a set of self-imposed rules since early in his career, when he threw away his paintbrushes to challenge himself and avoid the easy artistic gesture that he was so good at. (Now that he has lost the use of his fingers, he permits himself the luxury of a paintbrush.) The result is powerful paintings with an accessible charm and the delight of a magic trick.

Close has the kind of celebrity and adulation usually accorded to movie stars, and in fact, he had a cameo roll-on performance in Six Degrees of Separation, not to mention an appearance on Sesame Street, filmed in his studio. So it was no surprise that art lovers of all stripes were drawn to his talk at the Annenberg Center. (Another key feature in the Locks series is a free, public talk by the visiting art-gods about their work and lives.)

His insistence on playing by his own rules was made clear during the brief introduction by Gutman Professor of Fine Arts John Moore, when Close ignored the usual protocol and rolled silently onto the stage in his motorized wheelchair in mid-introduction. The story he chose to tell about himself was one of setting up challenges in his art and meeting them in much the way that he has met the challenges of his life—the first of which came in the form of severe learning disabilities.

“I was learning-disabled before dyslexia was invented,” he said, adding that in those days, if you had dyslexia, “you were simply dumb.” Strike two was an incredible lack of physical ability that forced him to find other ways to make friends. (“I threw like a girl,” he said, his wince acknowledging that the expression was not politically correct.) Then, in 1988, a congenitally weak blood vessel along his spine ruptured and left him paralyzed.

That should have been strike three, but Close—then in mid-career—wasn’t out. He put the loss of the use of his fingers in the same category as his inability to multiply, and during the talk he used his huge, bear-paw-like hands to pick up the water bottle beside him, then used his teeth to twist off the cap. “If I lost my teeth,” he said, “I’d be in real trouble.”

By the time he completed his MFA at Yale in 1964, he told his Zellerbach audience, he was searching for a way to separate his own portraits from Andy Warhol’s celebrity art. He began painting ordinary people, worker-bees like himself and his friends. But as he became successful, so did most of his friends. His oeuvre now reads like a Who’s Who of the art world, with portraits of painters like Lucas Samaras (who “if he could would be the Ayatollah”), Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein, who “looks a lot like Ren from Ren & Stimpy.” Close painted Lichtenstein in profile with a Dick Tracy chin—“It’s only fair” he said of the painter of enormous, cartoon-based Pop paintings. He also painted photographer Cindy Sherman, who is known for her disguises. “I tried to photograph her and there was no one there,” he recounted. “Finally, I told her to move around and began to give her roles to play: ‘You look like a Brancusi head, so be a Brancusi.’ When she didn’t have a role to play, she disappeared.”

Though he objects to being called a realist simply because he paints portraits (“I was always as interested in the artificial as the real,” he said), Close insists on working from photographs, basing his giant portraits on small Polaroid headshots of his subjects.

When viewing a Close portrait up close, one sees abstract marks on the canvas, concentric rings of dazzling color laid out in a grid of sometimes more than 1,000 little squares. But from a distance, a powerful portrait emerges, the marks of color suddenly taking on a purpose.

Close imposed the discipline of a grid system on each painting in order to slow himself down and pay equal attention to every square inch of the canvas. “Every piece of the painting is as important as every other piece,” he pointed out, adding that his system results in “no virtuoso brushstrokes, just stupid little unlovable marks.” Making all those stupid little marks in the grid squares takes about three months per painting, and while the process is laborious and boring, each time he finishes one, “it’s like a little celebration.”

His influences are varied. Close rejected comparisons to pointillism and Georges Seurat, the man who used multi-colored dots to create the impression of a single color. But when he saw floor mosaics in Rome, he thought, “My god, this is exactly what I’m doing.” The artisans understood the importance of distance, determined by a viewer’s height above the floor, and the tension between the image and the material. Finally, he compared his work to the small squares, each one unique, that his busy-handed grandmother crocheted and pieced together into banquet tablecloths.

That sort of telling human detail has been one of the Locks series’ key benefits for students, who get an unvarnished look at the reality of a life-long art career.

“The work was always the thing that drives him forward,” said Dustin London GFA’05, shortly before Close critiqued the students’ own work. Rachel Frank GFA’05 came away comparing her own group of buddies, many of whom she plans to stay in touch with in New York, to Close’s Yale grad-school class—an all-star group that included Serra, sculptor Nancy Graves, and painter Robert Mangold. “We have pushed each other to take bigger risks,” said Frank, “and feel strongly about those risks.”

Libby Rosof writes about art for roberta fallon and libby rosof’s artblog,

©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/05


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True Grid: Close’s outsized
Self Portrait (2004-2005, oil on
canvas) is made up of thousands
of “stupid little unlovable marks.”